Local Heroes: The Uncanny Counter

All images from the (uncredited) English translation of The Uncanny Counter on Tapas. Story and art by Jang E.

In an era where superhero comic characters seem endlessly mired in the concept of the multiverse, a South Korean webtoon series—its television adaptation now in its second season and soon to air internationally on Netflix—is taking a more direct materialist approach to the world rather than a determinist one. I’m referring to The Uncanny Counter, available via Kakao in South Korea and Tapas in the United States. The story concerns a high school student who is granted incredible powers with which to exorcize evil forces that hold onto souls, preventing them from passing into the afterlife and magnifying their own power.

The Uncanny Counter has more classical influences than is typically seen in these kinds of stories today. Author Jang E actually titled the story "The Amazing Rumor" in English. This is a fairly literal translation of the original Korean title, 경이로운 소문, with "Rumor" being the most commonly used interpretation of the main character’s name, So Mun (소문), while 경이로운 can be translated a lot of different ways. The actual international adjective "Uncanny" has a similar kind of comics history as "Amazing," though, with “Counter” being the in-story term to describe those who suppress the evil spirits.

In general, The Uncanny Counter is surprisingly unconcerned with lore - an increasingly important aspect to intellectual property franchising. Instead, much of its pivotal action takes place in the real world. So Mun walks with a limp, and is mercilessly bullied by classmate Hyuk-woo, in typical Flash Thompson style. Where this comic differs significantly from the typical wimp-overcoming-bully fantasy, though, is that Hyuk-woo continues to escalate, and So Mun’s refusal to just lay off eventually leads to his spirit partner, Wi-gen, calling for a revocation of their partnership.

In recent big-budget versions of superhero stories like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, origin stories and the trials heroes face are less a matter of cause and effect than inherent laws of the universe. These kinds of narratives can be fun for those familiar with the source material, but have questionable relevancy when applied to any kind of real world issues. Across the Spider-Verse somewhat awkwardly has to juggle the fact that the parental figures of its most in-focus Spider-people are cops, when we live in an era where the entire concept of policing is under fire from Black Lives Matter and similar movements as doing more harm than good. Gwen Stacy rationalizes this by telling her father that if he doesn’t wear a badge, someone who shouldn’t will. The sentiment is sweet, but not exactly convincing or meaningful in the serious context of state-sponsored violence.

So Mun’s parents are also cops, but the greater narrative of The Uncanny Counter uses their professions in a far more complex way than asserting generic moral value. While So Mun initially believes that his parents have died in a car accident (the same car accident that left him comatose, and thus physically capable of becoming a Counter at all), twists and turns in the plot reveal that they were investigating the local mayor: the father of So Mun’s bully, and the patron of a hitman who becomes host to a powerful evil spirit.

The unavoidably pro law enforcement angle of the costumed crimefighter genre is something these kinds of comics and comic adaptations have struggled with in the political context of recent times. Yet The Uncanny Counter does an excellent job threading that needle by emphasizing the degree to which various social injustices are connected. Notably, the Counters are under restrictions when it comes to using their abilities for anything except the apprehension of evil spirits - in theory making them not that different from most non-interventionist western superheroes. But because their powers derive from their spirit partners, with whom they are in regular contact, they’re allowed to make arguments and plead their case in regard to alleged violations. A major set piece of the first television season of The Uncanny Counter involves them sabotaging a political event where the actual antagonist is nowhere to be seen, for which they’re sanctioned. The short-sighted, corrupt behavior of Mayor Shin and his desire to seek more power makes his alliance with an evil spirit unsurprising and practically inevitable, even as it’s emphasized time and again that evil spirits can’t work well with allies. They have too much to gain from backstabbing.

One of the big hooks for the second season of The Uncanny Counter, which adapts the second series of the webtoon, is that the villains are three high-level spirits who are, somehow, are able to work together despite their nature. Yet the series hasn’t lost its sense of social conscience. While the Counters maintain a noodle shop as their cover story in the first season, they become a social welfare organization in the second. This is a form of recognition that for everyone’s best efforts to keep the spirit stuff and the real world stuff separate, they can’t be totally decoupled. The evil spirits are able to operate by collaborating with humans who have grievances with the world around them, all of which are tied back to core social problems. There’s no ideological components here, or notions of unbreakable universal law. Just action and reaction.

As is the case with most South Korean webtoons and webtoon adaptations, the popularity of The Uncanny Counter is mostly localized to other Asian markets. Complex distribution questions enter into part of why this is the case, but on a simpler level I suspect this narrative has gained traction in such regions because Asian popular culture is more likely to be genuinely critical of authority figures and institutions. Mayor Shin isn’t just one guy who’s personally ruining society; he’s emblematic of social problems throughout South Korea that are often reported on internationally as if they were unique to South Korean culture, although they aren’t by any means. As we speak, riots in France are still ongoing in protest of the ruling government.

This isn’t to say that all comics can or should be political polemics. But I appreciate how The Uncanny Counter is a superhero fantasy written in a world with stakes that are actually relatable. Whether or not the multiverse collapses is just a fanciful idea compared to darker, more down-to-earth problems like abusive fathers with gambling addictions or mothers so driven to despair they attempt murder-suicide.